Our thoughts exert a commanding influence on our lives, yet we know so little about where they come from. We’re in good company; even the most cutting-edge scientists and philosophers can’t fully answer this question. Mysteries aside, we do know our thoughts are impacted by our daily experiences. What’s happening in the news, our work environment, personal relationships, etc., all affect what’s on our mind. Our external world makes a big impression, and our mind soaks it up and formulates opinions or theories to classify what happened. How we interpret this information directly influences how we feel and relate with the world, our core beliefs, and unique preferences. But did you know there is wonderful potential to be gained by increasing the awareness of our thought patterns? By observing what holds our attention, we reveal a wealth of insights into what drives our behaviors. This cultivates an understanding of our choices and awakens us to more empowered decision-making.
To take notice of our mental functions requires exploring our psyche. Thoughts are continuous, high volume (upward of 50,000 every day), and sometimes difficult to reign in. In fact, our thoughts occur in layers of consciousness, like a complicated scramble of noises at various volumes—think of it as a jumbled mishmash of everything our senses took in throughout the day. As disorganized as this may seem, our mental chatter is often a yield of our deeply rooted and unconscious patterning, much of which was imprinted during childhood. So amidst this swirl of thinking, you’ll find recurring and sometimes concealed ideas, oftentimes judgments, about everything you do, think, and desire. The bad news: when this underground dialogue conflicts with your current way of life, it creates a blind spot; a stumbling block. The good news: This can be clarified and overcome if your thoughts are brought to the surface through awareness.
Each thought has a certain type of energy based on its content or our relationship with that subject. This energy elicits a reaction somewhere in the body, and those that are emotional charged can penetrate deeply and serve as triggers for tension. Thoughts often occur simultaneously in the brain and the body. They play out as subtle shifts in our physical position felt as micromovements in our weight distribution. Translated, if your thoughts are productive, positive, and peaceful, this literally moves you to assume a more relaxed and centered stance. Conversely, when you get stuck in your head, ruminating about difficult topics, harsh memories, self-defeating prophecies, or faulty thinking, this can create a type of tunnel vision that causes and exacerbates stress, stiffness, and tension in how you feel and hold yourself.
So stop. Notice your thoughts moving through your mind (like observing clouds passing across the sky). What are they saying? What are they doing to you? Ultimately, taking note of these observations and their effects will help you see your blind spots quicker, avoid excess tension and ultimately, stay more fluid and resilient throughout your day. As you become familiar with the interrelatedness of your physical and mental dimensions, you’ll cultivate an intimacy with yourself. And you’ll realize that the best way to understand your thoughts is to methodically and non-judgmentally explore how they make you feel. Fully express what’s on your mind by granting permission for your feelings simply to exist (because they already do). Do not assess their value or validity, but rather hold space in your heart for whatever comes up. In turn, your thoughts will reveal their hidden meanings. This act will bring you into the present moment, clear your mind, alleviate stuck energy, and enlighten your choices.
- Label types of tension. Draw your attention inward. Notice places that feel congested: areas holding tension or tightness in your body. Not all these areas will feel the same. You may notice that some areas feel dense and heavy, while others feel strained and wiry. Think through each part of your body (hands, feet, legs, hips, stomach, ribs, shoulders, arms, and head) and label the type of tension you feel. By doing this, you’ll gain important information about your physical holding patterns and heighten your sense of nuance as you expand into a meditative state.
- Attend to your body. Our bodies respond to our thoughts (and vice versa). The next time you get stuck in your head and all worked up about something, stop and take notice of how your body feels. It’s common for our shoulders to tense up when we get stressed, or our jaw or buttocks to tighten when we think about something that makes us angry or afraid. This response is different for every person, but we all share the commonality of making physical adjustments in our position in response to our thoughts. When you notice yourself brace, guard, or clench, try to pause and zoom in, knowing that your body is telling you something. Take a moment to listen to what your body has to say so you can attend to your needs.
- Savor the journey. It’s not about trying to negotiate away your unsavory thoughts— that would be like trying to bucket out the ocean. Instead, personify your thoughts, and cultivate intimacy with your inner dialogue by metaphorically taking a front row seat in your theater of consciousness. Rather than wish away, ignore, or revile negative thinking, simply watch all of the storylines in your imagination unfold. Meet each of the characters in your mind with a spirit of compassion, humor, patience, and love. Allow yourself to be as moved by their flaws as their talents while maintaining calm and centered in your seat of growing mindfulness and wisdom.